Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Q-Tip & Raphael Saadiq - everything old is new again

I was contemplating writing a "Best of 2008"-type list of albums, but since I barely purchased a single CD in the last year, that would be kinda stoopid. The reasons for this include my chronic lack of money to throw around, but primarily because there is so little great music coming out that I deem worthy of forking out my hard-earned for. Which is really sad, since in the late 90s I was buying 50-60 CDs a year on average. I did recently lash out on John Legend's "Evolver" album, but that was kinda disappointing, an embrace of the mainstream so blatant he may as well have resigned as a serious soul artist.

Strangely in a genre that celebrates youth culture, the best hip-hop I've heard this past year came from a real old head. Q-Tip, formerly of A Tribe Called Quest, who has been in the rap game for 20 years (pensionable in rap terms). That his album "The Renaissance" is arguably the best hip-hop album out this year says as much about the shitty state of the art form as it does about this album.

I've never really loved Tip as a lyricist; he's solid, and his smooth flow always sounds nice to the hear, but without his former ATCQ partner-in-crime Phife Dawg, he is like bread without the butter. However, the real star of "The Renaissance" is the production, which is handled almost entirely by Tip himself. Damn, I never knew the guy was this good behind the boards, but the finely crafted jazz-funk-tinged grooves make the album eminently listenable. It's all pretty retro, a slick, slightly updated take on the early 90s NYC hip-hop sound, and pays little concession to current trends, which is largely what makes it so good. Lead single "Gettin Up" is one of the great tracks of 2008, and "Won't Trade It" is equally fabulous. Raphael Saadiq pops up with the hook on the infectious "We Fight, We Love".

Speaking of Saadiq, I finally was able to cop his latest album at a reasonable price ($26). I could have got it earlier for $40 but in this tough economic climate I ain't gonna pay that if I don't have to. Man it's tough to score quality new soul music in this city, if you don't wanna pay inflated import prices. And they wonder why people download illegally. But I digress.

Anyway, "The Way I See It" is a good album. Real good. It is even less contemporary than Q-Tip's album, and it adds nothing innovative to the soul music canon, but it is classy, fine music. If Amy Winehouse can make big bucks out of rehashing 60s soul (with naughty words added to make it "edgy"), Saadiq should as well.

If you ain't in the know, Raphael Saadiq used to be called Raphael Wiggins and was the key member of the trio Tony Toni Tone, who put out a handful of good if not amazing albums in the 90s. The singer and multi-instrumentalist has released a few solo albums as well as one as a member of Lucy Pearl, and has produced a whole heap of stuff for other people. But this is the first album of his that I feel I can embrace wholeheartedly.

Like a number of others in the fuzzily defined world of neo-soul, Saadiq in his various incarnations never seemed to be sure if he wanted to be a contemporary R&B artist or a full-blown retro act. Thus he, like Musiq, Eric Benet and others, mixed up a brew that was better than the dominant casio-R&B of the day, but still lightweight compared to the soul heroes of yesteryear they were influenced by. And for every great track Saadiq is responsible for (Anniversary, If I Had No Loot, etc), there is a corresponding lame half-assed idea. I still regret shelling out 30 bucks for his "Instant Vintage" album. Should've illegally downloaded it instead.

So with "The Way I See It", Saadiq has just decided to make a full-blown Motown/Philly soul record. Why not, it's trendy right now. Even Australian Idol winner Guy Sebastian just put out an album of 60s soul covers. Fortunately, Saadiq has the musical nous to make a solid album that does more than just rehash old riffs. Actually, I take that back, he rehashes a whole bunch of stuff, with heaps of riffs sounding suspiciously like I've heard them before. But who cares. It's got good tunes, great arrangements and sprightly grooves, almost entirely played by Saadiq himself, and his singing sounds more at home in this environment than it has previously in his long career.

I'm always interested to read reviews on artists like this, who are mining a sound of yesteryear (60s soul, golden-age hip-hop). Half the reviews tend to get nostalgic about the artist recapturing the vibe of a much-loved bygone era; the other half deride the artist for a lack of relevance. There tends to be a different standard for rock performers. For instance, bands like the Strokes, Kings of Leon, and whoever else is feted as the current Kings of Rock, may have good songs but don't do anything particularly original. Yet within the sphere of what is considered "black music" there is frequently an expectation to remain constantly on the pulse of what is shiny and new, even if what is shiny and new (eg. Soulja Boy) is mostly crap.

The way I figure it, its great when artist break new ground and introduce new ideas and sounds and trends. Without it, music would be dull and stale. Yet there must always be a place for "classic" sounds in music. The mid 60s to early 70s was the celestial highpoint of soul music, and the late 80s to mid 90s the glory days of hip-hop. No wonder artists like Saadiq and Q-Tip (or Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, or Jurassic 5, or Duffy, and so on) wanna recapture that magic. And why not? Why should we be resigned to not hearing great music anymore? A good song is a good song is a good song.

Oh, and if I sound like an old has-been complaining about the music young people listen to these days, don't think I'm unaware of that fact!

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